Among 38 stonecutters, Hamilton found that 89 percent reported “vibration-induced white finger,” according to research published in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Fast-forward to modern times, and the disorder is known as hand-arm vibration syndrome. Symptoms range from tingling, numbness, pain and “blanching” (loss of color) in the fingers, as well as weakened grip due to nerve and blood vessel damage, from using vibrating tools. In severe cases, gangrene can occur.
About 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to hand-arm vibration, and as many as half will develop HAVS, according to Frederick, MD-based occupational vibration consultant Donald Wasserman. Some experts believe the number may be higher because the disorder is sometimes unrecognized or underreported – and is sometimes confused with carpal tunnel syndrome…
Who’s at risk?
Workers who regularly use power tools in various industries – from construction and maintenance to mining and forestry – are at risk, as well as workers in colder climates. Any kind of vibrating tool can result in hand-arm vibration, and longer exposure can increase the risk of developing HAVS, experts say. Tools that have been linked to hand-arm vibration include:
- Chain saws
…Hand-arm vibration syndrome can take six months to six years to develop and, after the fingers blanch, the condition is irreversible, according to NIOSH biomechanical engineer Daniel Welcome. Therefore, prevention is crucial…
How can workers be protected?
Experts advise the use of anti- or low-vibration tools that are appropriate for the job. David Rempel, professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, recommends employers purchase tools with lower handle vibration and reduce the hours of exposure per day.
Other measures also can help. Wasserman and colleagues identified eight “good work practices,” originally shared in the American Society of Safety Engineers’ Professional Safety journal:
- Keep the hands warm.
- Refrain from smoking.
- Grip the tool as lightly as possible.
- Keep the tool well-maintained.
- Keep cold exhaust air from pneumatic tools away from the hands.
- Take breaks from working with tools – rest for at least 10 minutes per hour.
- Use gloves that cover the fingers and are certified by ISO 10819.
- Seek medical attention if HAVS symptoms appear.